The “Feel It” Lab

Writing detail-oriented pieces, such as profiles or other bits of narrative journalism, requires detail-oriented reporting. In many cases, students struggle with this because they have learned to rely on only a few sense: They hear sources speak and they see the activity going on around them. When those students have to create a deeper or more nuanced “word picture,” they often lack the feel in their reporting and the nuance in their vocabulary to make it work.

To help students better attend to other senses and find better descriptors, I developed two labs: Smell it and Feel it. Today, my feature writing class did the Feel It lab and I captured key moments of it. I also recorded some explanation as to how to go about doing this if you want to give it a try in one of your classes.

The basic idea is to find a way to isolate the sense of touch from the other senses and then force the students to describe the tactile nature of what they were experiencing. I do this with what has lovingly been deemed “The Box of Doom.” Here’s a simple walk through:


Each year, I pick various things for the holes. I try to make them varied in texture, ranging from dry and gritty to wet and sloppy. I usually shop for groceries shortly before the lab, so I look for stuff that’s got an interesting tactile nature (as well as stuff that’s cheap and on sale). I have used peach pie filling, mincemeat, applesauce, sugar, sand, salt, baby formula, powdered milk and a dozen other things to make the holes change from year to year. I also like to mix them up so that the students don’t tip each other off from year to year. The one year a kid was told to go for Hole 3 because it wasn’t bad, he got a surprise: I changed the order around.



To make the process fair, I have three holes and 15 students, so there are only five slots per hole. This means that every “hole” will have five students who are all working independently and then collaboratively to come up with what they felt when they put their hand in the hole. Here’s how it works, with a few edits. I made sure to include at least two students experiencing each hole:


Once the students get done cleaning up, they need to come up with a list of 10-15 descriptive words that capture their experience. I allow a few short descriptive phrases, but I try to keep them at single words when possible to have them better focus on the specific sensation:


Once they have their own lists, they meet up with the other folks who had the same hole and they try to come up with a list of 20-25 words upon which they agree. They will need to compile that list for everyone else to see:


The students then list all their words on the board under their hole:



After we get all the words on the board, I reveal what was in each hole and we go through the list of the words and determine how well those words align with the material that was in the hole.


Once the students are done with this, I have them write up about a 1/2 page to a full page that includes those words as part of their description of the tactile experience. This is the outcome element I use to assess the entirety of the process. If you want to try it, feel free to include the write up as graded, or a check-off item or something else.

As always, I learn something from every experience like this. Today’s lessons include:

  1. Never buy generic dog food.
  2. Watch out for things in which the smell will create a big problem. That dog food was atrocious.

Hope this was as enjoyable for you as it was for me and my students. If there’s one thing they always say they remember, it’s the “Feel It” Lab.

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